The Vocal Point
A Conversation with composer Ricky Ian Gordon
In composer Ricky Ian Gordon's lovely, colorful apartment in Manhattan, in which he has lived for almost 25 years, we had the following conversation . . .
Leslie Holmes: What was it like growing up with three older sisters?
Ricky Ian Gordon: It was so great. I adored them and, obviously, I was adored, because I came seven years later than them. They were very interesting women. They were mercurial. They were brilliant. They were all different, and they deeply influenced me. Among other things, my sister Susan would put me to bed by reading me poetry. So I was instilled, right from the beginning, with a love of poetry. My sister Lorraine lived on the lower East Side. She got pregnant when she was sixteen, and my mother would send me there to cheer her up. I stayed with her a lot, and one of the first things I remember was going to see the Japanese movie called Gates of Hell. I have an adoring obsession with foreign films. I'm sure it began around then. My sister Susan introduced me to the music of Joni Mitchell. Joni Mitchell became a big influence on me. And my sister Sheila is a painter. She did that portrait over the piano.
LH: What a wonderful painting.
RIG: Yes, she's an amazing painter. It was a fantastic growing up. I was so close to them.
LH: I have had so much fun reading "Home Fires" by Donald Katz. It's all about your family, but it's so much more than that. It's an incredible history of a post-war American middle- class family.
LH: I read it and I said to myself, "Where was I when all this was going on?" I think I was raising children. I went to see the movie Milk, last year, with my brother in San Francisco. We sat in the back of the Castro Theater. I realized that Harvey Milk was shot on my oldest son's 16th birthday, so I was probably giving a birthday party. It was the third time my brother had seen it - he's gay - and he cried through the whole movie. I think that movie should be made to be seen by everybody in the country.
RIG: Yes, it's a great movie. It was probably seen by a lot of people.
LH: I hope so. I think it must have been hard for your father to have Lorraine living on the lower East Side, since they had moved from there to the Bronx, and then to Long Island in 1952.
RIG: Right. He was like, "Why would you want to move back there?"
LH: I'm sure he felt that way, since, at that time, your family was then living on nice, suburban Long Island in a beautiful house, right on the corner, in a lovely neighborhood. Why would you want to go back to poverty on the lower East Side?
RIG: But the suburbs were the antithesis of what he thought they would be for his kids. They were insular. They were narrow. We were all born different, so whatever kind of norm there was to fit into in the suburbs didn't fit any of us . . . me, least of all. We all kind of sky- rocketed out of there into some sort of self-destruction, or other.
LH: Well, you seem to have survived.
LH: I know you've had lots of different turns in your life, and I know that, for you, growing up in Harbor Isle [Long Island] was not easy at all.
RIG: No, it wasn't. It was very violent.
LH: And, I think it was intolerant.
RIG: Yes. I don't know how far you got into the book but, eventually, we just moved away.
LH: Down to the harbor? I read the entire book, by the way.
RIG: Yes, to the Boat Yard. That was far enough away from the family who had bullied me. It's funny because, recently, I saw a video of the Island because of Hurricane Sandy, and I was so moved. The whole video was amazing. One of the people who had treated me so badly in Harbor Isle is now a fireman, and he was saving lives. I thought to myself that it was all in the past. It all seems so big to you when you're kids. I had the great good fortune of transcending my childhood and making something of it.
LH: And you had a really great friend.
RIG: Peter? You know who he is now, right?
LH: He is an agent, I believe, for opera singers.
RIG: My two best friends, Peter Randsman and Arthur Levy, went into music. Peter became an agent for opera singers, and Arthur is one of the biggest voice teachers around. He teaches Audra McDonald, and a lot of other famous people. It's sort of funny. We were slated. Last night I went to the Met, and I saw Il trovatore. If you remember from Home Fires, that's the first opera I ever saw. Sheila took Peter and me to the Amato Opera.
LH: Years ago I was the Assistant Concert Manager at Town Hall, before I got married. I knew all about Tony Amato.
RIG: Did you go?
LH: I didn't go, but I did a lot of singing. I never auditioned for him and I don't know why. I was heavy into oratorio, at the time.
RIG: I remember it being fantastic, when I was little. That was my first opera, and I adored it. I remember the production as being quite good.
LH: How old were you?
RIG: Probably 8 or 9. I remember seeing [Il] trovatore. Last night I went to hear Stephanie Blythe, because I'm writing this opera for her, but she canceled.
LH: I interviewed her at Tanglewood, and she is divine. She really communicated.
RIG: Yes. She connects.
LH: I'm so sorry she canceled.
RIG: I know. It happens. But I've seen her a lot. I haven't even started the piece. It's fine. [It will premiere with Opera Theater of St. Louis in June of 2014]
LH: Is that the piece you are writing for the Met?
LH: I keep reading allusions to it, but there's never a title. It just says you are writing a composition for the Met.
RIG: There's a playwright named Lynn Nottage. She won the Pulitzer Prize for a play called Ruined, about Congolese women. She wrote an earlier play called Intimate Apparel. It's a fantastic play, and that's what we are going to adapt for the Met. For Stephanie I am writing for the Opera Theater of St. Louis. It's Twenty-Seven. The title comes from 27 rue de flourus, because she's going to be Gertrude Stein, and that was the address of Stein's home in Paris. Then, for Houston, I have a one woman opera for [Frederica] von Stade called Coffin in Egypt.
LH: I'm so glad she's still singing.
RIG: She's lovely.
LH: She's beyond lovely. And she has been doing a big farewell tour, while she is still singing so well. I heard her a couple of years ago in San Francisco, and she sounded great.
RIG: She still sounds great. This is about a 90-year-old woman, looking back on her life. It's sort of perfect, not that she's that old, but it's perfect. It's a Horton Foote play.
LH: I've read so much about you that I feel as if I know you better than I know myself.
RIG: Have you heard a lot?
LH: I've gone onto YouTube.
RIG: Yes, there's a lot there.
LH: I heard Audra McDonald singing "Lullaby." It's fantastic.
RIG: Yes, that is good.
LH: The song is wonderful, and she is wonderful. I think it was at Symphony Hall [Boston].
RIG: Yes. It was televised there. But, she recorded it for her first CD, Way Back to Paradise. I had four songs on that CD. Yeah. She's a phenomenon.
LH: A lot of the singers who sing your songs are terrific. I really liked StaceyTappan. When she sent me her CD, she sent a lovely note, and signed the CD. She seems particularly nice.
RIG: Yes. She is. Kevin Putz was curating an evening for The New York Festival of Song, and asked me to be part of it. They needed a soprano, and they wanted me to play my song. So, I suggested Stacey, and she came and sang it last February. I know her from the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She and Nicole Cabell.
LH: You were writing for the young artist program there, and you wrote Morning Star.
RIG: That has been performed in a workshop setting by the Cincinnati Opera. It will be premiered by the company in 2015.
LH: There was something about Stacey's voice, with its space and overtones in her high notes, which spoke to me. I loved that show where you and she were performing snippets from your compositions, and she kept changing her costumes. It's on You Tube.
RIG: Actually, that's just excerpts from the show that we did. It's a two act event. The guy videotaped the whole event, and then just put together a collage, in order to promote the show.
LH: It's wonderful. She just pops out of herself, and moves so beautifully. How much do you like a singer to move when they're performing?
RIG: I like all of it. My least favorite thing is crook-of-the-piano art song singing. It's dead. I don't really work with singers who do that, these days. I feel like, if it's not theater, what's the point?
LH: Song . . . Opera . . . Music Theater . . . it's all theater. And that's what's such fun about doing a vocal recital. You can be fifteen different people. It's all about the words. Talking about poetry . . .
RIG: . . . this whole thing of being put to sleep with poetry caused poetry to become sort of a lullaby for me. I learned, early, to go to it for solace, for clarity, for understanding. I did something for the Desoff Choir. A poet sent me his work, hoping I would use it, but it was too subjective and intimate. Poetry is the deepest way that I order my universe. When Jeffrey [Ricky's partner] died, What The Living Do by Marie Howe - not only that book but the poem - literally carried me through. Yet, that poem I knew before the book came out. It was published much earlier. It's where I seek order . . . clarity. And, when I set poems to music, it's almost like I'm healing a rift in myself. I have a natural insecurity about my own intelligence. Poetry seems to me perfect . . . perfectly ordered. By setting it to music I am entering it into my hard drive. I always know a poem by heart after I've set it to music. And, now, I know a lot of poems by heart, because I know I'm going to set them eventually. The best way to set them is to internalize them.
LH: One sentence that you reportedly said was, "I memorize a poem and then let it marinate."
RIG: That's right.
LH: I love that.
RIG: It's a gesture on behalf of the poem. And, then, I started teaching a class and that's what I called the class: 'A Gesture on Behalf of the Poem'. It's a class for composers on how to set text to music. I'm working today on a section of Morning Star. We had this fantastic workshop on it in Cincinnati, and we decided to deconstruct the piece and put it together differently. We had this fantastic director named Rod Daniels. We decided, in a few moments, that we needed a song where all the men characters talk about their work. We already had one where the women characters talk about their dreams. There's a young school teacher named Harry, who's meeting a kid named Tony in the park that night to give him three books: a book about Lincoln, Jefferson, and Walt Whitman. The kid is saying, "Why do you pay so much attention to me?" and Harry is saying, "Because I'll teach you and I will write a book, someday, on American history that doesn't glorify war. And then, one day, because of someone like you, there won't be any more." It's just such a beautiful little section, and I wrote that the tempo marking above that section was 'arrestingly vulnerable.' It's so tender. Anyway, I love words. I'm very lucky in terms of the librettists I've worked with. If I don't work with great writers, like Michael Korie, Mark Campbell, Bill Hoffman, Tony Kushner, and Royce Vavrek, I can't write the music.
LH: You are doing a new work with Michael Korie.
RIG: We already did - The Garden of the Finzi Continis. It hasn't premiered, but we wrote it. Royce Vavrek is writing the Stephanie Blythe piece. They are all really good writers, and their words inspire me. You have to be inspired by the words.
LH: Of course you do. As a performer, if you're not inspired by the words, play the violin. We singers have the luxury of having words. My feeling about performing is communication.
LH: You've set mostly 20th and 21st century American poets.
RIG: Yes, I really have. Occasionally Paul Celan gets in there . . . or Yeats. There's some translated Rilke. But even when I set Rilke, it was Franz Wright's translation that I loved so much. I'm a pretty contemporary guy. For example, when I go to the opera, I would always rather go to a 20th century opera. I would always rather hear 20th century music. I would always rather read contemporary poetry. It's just the way I am.
LH: Well, that's now.
RIG: And that's what I'm interested in - the present.
LH: Somebody asked you why more people don't set Yeats. I loved your answer. Do you remember it?
RIG: No, what was my answer?
LH: Your answer was that Yeats's poems are so musical that they almost don't need music . . . that they're almost like lyrics.
RIG: Yes. He's in the great tradition of Irish lyric poets. You practically are singing them by speaking them. I did set the "Lake Isle of Innisfree" for Kurt Ollmann. There's a good video of that on You Tube.
LH: He does such an incredible job with "I Never Knew." It is amazing.
RIG: I put "Lake Isle of Innisfree" up there, too. Kurt is a beautiful singer.
LH: I met him at a NATS Conference, and he was so nice and low key.
RIG: He's a lovely guy. We all kind of grew up together. We came along at the same time. Renée Fleming is another one.
LH: I know. There's this whole group of great singers and composers who are all about the same age.
RIG: And Audra may be a little younger, but somehow it's just like it's a little world.
LH: There are a lot of well-known singers who have sung, or are singing, your songs. Have you written two song cycles for Renée, or have you written one and are going to write another?
RIG: Well really, for Renée, I wrote the Emily Dickinson song cycle. I also wrote two major operatic monologues for her. I wrote Harper's Monologue "Night Flight to San Francisco," which she did at Lincoln Center and all through the west. I orchestrated it last year for her. And, then, I just wrote a new one for her. "Night Flight" is Harper's last monologue in Angels in America, but I fell in love with Harper's first monologue about Antarctica. So, I set that right after my mom died. It took me a few months. I really love it. Theodore Presser is going to publish that, and that's dedicated to Renée, too. She says she'll do it, but probably more like next year. My dream is that she'll do both of them. "Night Flight to San Francisco" ends with this beautiful line, "Nothing's lost forever in this world. There is a kind of painful progress longing for what we've left behind and dreaming ahead." The "Antarctica" monologue begins musically with that idea, and then it starts like it's running down the street and she says, "I feel better. I feel better." That's the way the aria and monologue begin.
LH: That sounds wonderful, and she's such a good actress.
RIG: She's really superb. These concerts were amazing. If you watch on You Tube, Renée opened the New Philharmonic in October where she did the Messiaen Poemes pour mi, completely memorized and acted. It's staggering. This is the real deal. It's not just voice. It's the whole thing of commitment and connection. So, yes, I've written a lot for her.
LH: One of my favorites is Dawn Upshaw.
RIG: She's sweet, too. She recorded some of my music.
LH: She's all about the text.
LH: My experience has been, with these top singers and composers, that they are all wonderful. It's very rare that I talk to somebody and they are trying to prove something. It's probably because they are good enough, and at the top of their game and the game, that they don't have to prove anything. It has been a lovely experience talking with them.
RIG: Usually, too, it always works out that the better people are, the more comfortable they are with themselves.
LH: I know you were very close to your mother, Eve. I just learned from you that she passed away on June 27th of last year. Tell me about her.
RIG: She had been a Borscht Belt singer and comedienne. She was very funny and very, very bawdy. She told filthy jokes. She cursed like a sailor. What made her complex and rich was that, whenever she opened her mouth to sing, she was really gifted. She wasn't funny, when she sang. My mother had a very difficult childhood. Her father was an alcoholic, and he was a fish smoker. Her mother was a depressive, threatening suicide all the time. My mother had three older brothers. Her first language was Yiddish. So, when she sang, it was as if she tapped into something that was not just an old world, for her. It felt like the old world. She accessed something that was so primary Jewish. I'm sure I'm a musician because of her. When I was little, I was her pianist. She didn't necessarily sing professionally [with me], but we had our routine in our living room. We were so close. My mother adored me. I was her last, only boy, and a musician. We were really bonded.
LH: She had a beautiful voice.
RIG: Oh my God. You go on You Tube and hear her sing "Moon River"and "My Yiddishe Mama." Incredible. I don't even know if I'm doing it at NATS. Last time, they had me do a thing where I sort of talked about myself . . . my life. If I'm doing that this time, I always play her singing. So, we'll see what I'm expected to do. She was very funny, but also very sad. She was complex. My dad was tough.
LH: I was just about to say that she was very unlike your father.
RIG: She was unlike him. I once went to a clairvoyant. One of the first things she said was, "If it wasn't for your mother, your father probably would have killed someone." He was rage. God bless him, because I loved my dad, especially toward the end of his life. We really healed our relationship then.
LH: When did he die?
RIG: He died right before September 11th. He died August 22nd, and then I came back to New York when September 11th happened. So, it was 2001. Susan died in 2005.
LH: I know.
RIG: How did you know? Did you see the obit?
LH: I did. I Googled her. The site had various things about Susan, and then I went to the obituary. What made me do that was that, in one of your E-mails, you mentioned that she had written three memoirs. That made me think she had died.
RIG: There's an obituary that was published in San Francisco called "Remembering Susan." Some of the obituaries were really beautiful, like "The Guardian", in London. I go to this place called Ucross to write. It's in Wyoming and is my favorite place to go. It's a beautiful arts colony.
LH: You went to the West right after Jeffrey died.
RIG: That's right. And, that's when I discovered Wyoming. We [Ricky and Susan] went there together, and she finished this beautiful book called "Knitting Heaven and Earth." It came out two weeks before she died.
LH: You started out writing in small forms and, then, along came The Grapes of Wrath.
RIG: It opened in 2007.
LH: What drew you to a bigger form? I know you've loved opera for a long time. I loved the story about Die Walküre being your Show 'n' Tell in the sixth grade.
RIG: If I had sustained my most serious life-long dream, it was to be an opera composer. Remember, in 1996, I created my first opera, Tibetan Book of the Dead. But then, I was asked to do Grapes of Wrath. I wouldn't have picked it. What happened was that I read the book, and I was like, "Holy shit, this book is powerful." It felt like a real destiny moment. You don't say, "No" to that. I also felt like they would never get the rights to it. I thought it would never happen. So, I said, "Yes," trepidatiously. It took two years to get the rights. It happened to be the moment when I was just emerging . . . Audra recorded my stuff . . . Lincoln Center did a program of my music on their American Songbook series. It was called, "Bright Eyed Joy." I also had a performance of just my music on the Guggenheim Works and Process series. And, then, Steinbeck's estate said, "Yes," and we were on our way with Grapes of Wrath. I had to do a lot of thinking about what it meant to do something so much bigger. The pieces that inspired me were, for example, Porgy and Bess, Blitstein's Regina, and Kurt Weill's Street Scene. But then, also, two of my favorite pieces are Wozzeck and Lulu. And Wozzeck and Lulu are comprised of small forms that create a large one. I just thought, "I can do this." You're making something stone by stone. You're not making one big stone. I had this instinct to think of it that way. Consequently, when Michael Korie handed me the libretto, I knew to enter at the hot spots . . . wherever I felt most moved. I thought if I just set six places right at the outset, that have a lot of heat for me, I will have six hot ideas. And, if you have six hot ideas, you can start really making a building. For example, I had Ma Joad's aria, "This Dead Land is Us." I had Tom's "I Keep My Nose Clean," and Casey's "A Naked Tree a-Wastin' in the Sun." I had "The Last Time There Was Rain." You start having these big blocks, and out of those you have themes. Then you can build. So, now I don't overwhelm myself with the thought of big pieces, because all big pieces come from little pieces. You're putting something together that may last longer, duration-wise, but it's still made up of smaller things that make a whole.
LH: I know that you've said that you don't write intellectually. You write instinctively. I think the story of how you wrote Orpheus is absolutely mind-blowing. Todd Palmer wanted you to write a clarinet piece, because Jeffrey was so very sick. You said, "I can write a piece for clarinet and piano, but that's it." He sounded so disappointed, and it sounds as if you just woke up at 4:00 a.m. and . . .
RIG: . . . the whole thing came to me.
LH: The whole things came to you, and you did the libretto for Orpheus in an hour.
RIG: But not the music. When I say I'm instinctive, I mean that I'm not Elliott Carter. I'm not a serial composer. However, at least now I understand how to create something that has architectural integrity. You know, when you work with young composers, someone can come with an idea, but it's about how you develop that idea that matters. In a big piece, how does that idea sit on the mountain? I know now that I'm instinctive, but it is an intellectual process regarding how you string things together . . . how you make a whole. But, yes, I like someone who vomits onto the page, as opposed to battling over every note, trying to figure out if every note is justified. I can't imagine it. Last night I was reading that Verdi wrote [Il] trovatore in a month. I've had that experience, that things just pop out of me. Maybe it's just that I'm ready, like Green Sneakers. I just kind of saw it in my head, and that came really quickly.
LH: What a performance of that I saw that on You Tube. Jesse Blumberg was fantastic.
RIG: That was done at Lincoln Center on April 6th, part of the American Songbook series.
LH: I liked whoever did the video of that. It is so moving. Wasn't it David Gockley who inspired you to write The Tibetan Book of the Dead?
RIG: Yes. He asked me to do an opera for his company [Houston Grand Opera], and then came to New York to see what I could do for them. The first idea wasn't working out. It just happened that we met down the block at Café Mozart, which used to be there. I told him I was reading an incredible book for Jeffrey. He asked what book, and I said, "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying." He goes, "Why don't you make an opera out of that?" And that was really a higher power because, within a day, I had the libretto. I met with Bill Hoffman quickly, who said I should talk with his friend Jean-Claude Van Itallie. He wrote a play about The Book of the Dead. So, I called Jean-Claude and he sent me the libretto. The libretto was written in seventeen short scenes. It was the most perfect opera libretto you could ever get. So, I wrote that really quickly. That's in Green Sneakers. There's a section called, "Operas come and go." That section opens with the opening music of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
LH: Isn't that how you and Jeffrey went down the Buddhist path?
RIG: Yes. He wanted me to learn the Buddhist teachings to help him die. And then, he wanted to die listening to the aria at the moment of death, which begins, "My friend, now is the moment of death. The time has come for you to start out. You are going home." And, we had a recording of it all prepared for me to play for him when he died. But, the morning he died I was in the bed, up against the wall, and he was sitting on my lap, facing me. There was no way I was going to get him out of bed, so I just started singing to him. He died in my arms. That death really changed me forever. He had woken up, and his breathing was funny. I told him I was going to get him a prednisone. Prednisone usually snapped him out of anything. I propped him up on me, and I was trying to put a prednisone in his mouth. His mother was sleeping in this room [the living room]. I called her. She came to the door, looked, and said, "He's going." It was really wild. It's funny. I'll tell you something, Leslie. Tibetan Book of the Dead is really beautiful. It was buried for a long time and, all of a sudden now, when I meditate, I'm really excited about it. My fantasy, now, is that a lot of my work is going to get into the world. Finzi Continis will be done. Morning Star will be done. I believe Tibetan Book of the Dead is going to happen . . . a proper production. It was almost as if the time it happened was too intense for me to oversee it. Now, I feel that I know what to do.
LH: It's amazing how you don't know what grieving is until you've been there.
RIG: Yes. The word 'grief' has no resonance until you have been through it.
LH: My brother died of a melanoma at 23. I remember going outside of the hospital - I'm sure this happened to you many times while Jeffrey was dying - and there were all these people walking around as if everything was fine. And, you want to shout, "Don't you know what's happening?"
RIG: You want the world to stop.
LH: I think that's why, often, more mature singers convey a deeper meaning of the text, because they have usually been through 'stuff.'
LH: They have all of that to call upon. Sycamore Trees. Did that take a lot of courage to write, because it's about yourself? One heading on Google calls it "a compelling musical of suburban secrets."
RIG: Courage? At this point, everything takes courage. Saying, "Yes," to anything takes courage. At least for me, you're creating something out of nothing. I'm terrified of it all, from a two minute song to a three act opera. It doesn't exist. The worst periods are when you're meeting with the opera company, and having conference calls. It's all about something that doesn't exist. Everybody's talking about budgets, your salary, your commission, the designers and the directors. My agent sends me the dates, like first vocal score due this date. I don't even look at them, because they make me ill. When we did it [Sycamore Trees], it was so deep for me. My best friend played my mother. She was magnificent. The way it worked out was that, a year before it opened, there was this revival of Gypsy on Broadway. I'm watching it, and this guy comes out and he plays Tulsa. I said to Kevin [Doyle, Ricky's partner], "Whoa. That guy is totally stealing the show." It was Tulsa, but it was so complex and rich. Then, I forgot who he was, until he came in to audition for Sycamore Trees, and I thought, "Oh, my God, it's that guy who played Tulsa." He played me and was amazing. Sycamore Trees was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.
LH: Is there a whole recording of it?
RIG: Yes. I'll play you something from it, because I love that music.
LH: The title is so interesting because, when they decided to build the new town on Long Island, they brought in sycamore trees, because they grow fast.
RIG: In the show, my mother breaks a plate. She was a plate breaker. She had a lot of tantrums, like that.
LH: She was a plate breaker until she decided to go to Atlantic City and gamble, one day a week. I think she was quoted as saying, "It's a lot better than breaking plates."
RIG: Yes. It's funny. Yesterday, I was thinking, Leslie, that Sycamore Trees is a musical, but I'm wondering about making it into an opera. We had this incredible production in Washington. We won the Helen Hayes award, and it's not the right moment to do it in New York. It's too, sort of, complex, musically. But, it's going to happen. I'm feeling more confident that it's all going to get out there. Did you see any of Rappahannock [County]?
LH: No, I didn't find anything on You Tube about it.
RIG: I am putting something from it onto You Tube. But, with Sycamore Trees there was an element of fear. It left me so naked. I felt bad on opening night. One of my nephews collapsed, literally, and had to go to the emergency room.
LH: From watching it?
RIG: Yes. It was very upsetting to him. He's my sister Lorraine's boy, Jeremy. Now, that's where I go with my work. It has to be really personal, for me.
LH: You can tell, in your music, that it's personal. Who wants impersonal music? In this day and time, when I think half of the population sits in front of their computers all day doing Face Book, don't we need to feel? So, listening to your music is so refreshing, because it's so impassioned, and so full of joy and pain . . . and brokenness and wholeness. The piano accompaniments are so clean. They're so clear and transparent.
RIG: And that's me playing of both of the CDs.
LH: I know. Not bad. [laughter]
RIG: Those are so hard. I had to really practice for them.
LH: And I love you singing "A Horse with Wings." That seems, to me, to be you, because you want to do something worthwhile.
LH: How do you feel when you sing that?
RIG: It's a good feeling. It's sort of like, "Wow. I wrote myself my own little anthem."
LH: That was an early piece.
RIG: Really early. 1982, 3, 4? It just popped out of me.
LH: It's a wonderful song.
RIG: Yes. I like that song. Judy Collins has been singing it all over the country, lately. We went to hear her do it at Café Carlyle. It was so beautiful and so sweet. And it was so strangely circular. You know the thing about Joni Mitchell?
LH: Yes. I do. My heart broke when you got to Carnegie Hall to hear her, and your mother had forgotten to sign the check.
RIG: I got in, though. When the article in The [New York] Times came out, by my sister, about Joni Mitchell, the picture on the cover was Joni Mitchell with Judy Collins. Judy Collins made Joni Mitchell famous by singing "Both Sides Now." So here it was, so many years later, with Judy Collins singing my song, alongside Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Webb, Bob Dylan, and her own songs.
LH: It was like living a dream.
RIG: All this is circular. It's beyond a dream. Why worry about anything? Everything happens when it's supposed to, anyway.
LH: I can't remember the present you made for Joni Mitchell, and gave her on the stage.
RIG: A dress. . . . a full-length, brown muslin dress that I embroidered from head to toe. I wrapped it in brown paper, and painted her on the package.
LH: And she said, from the stage, "I love things you make yourself."
RIG: But, then I never heard from her about the dress, or anything. It doesn't matter. It was fun to make it.
LH: Again, I felt so sorry for you at that concert, having waited in line for so long.
RIG: I could have killed my mother.
LH: And then, weren't you going to hear Roberta Peters , and got caught in a snow storm so never got there?
RIG: I ran away from home. It was 1968. I was coming to hear her do Lucia. I had never been to the Met, and I had never heard her live. I got there, and then I couldn't get home, because of the snow storm. I got stuck in the city, so I called my sister, crying, and one of her friends came and got me at the Empire Hotel. I was twelve. I was in the lobby, crying. She took me to her apartment. I was glad to see it, though. [laughs]
LH: Where are Lorraine and Sheila now?
RIG: Lorraine lives in Charlottesville. She's a psychic healer, now. She spends most of her life in meditation. Sheila's a painter, and she lives in Boca Raton. My mom lived closest to Sheila. When she was dying. I would go there all the time and stay with them. Sheila did a lot of the beautiful paintings in this room.
LH: It strikes me that, for someone who is 56 years old, you have been through a lot . . . a whole lot. And, yet, you have this enthusiasm, this ebullience . . . not, "Oh, what am I going to do next?" Even though you're scared to death as to whether the music will come out - and it would be, perhaps, a bit audacious not to feel that way - you are so positive.
RIG: Well, the feeling is that I haven't even started yet. I was at the Met last night, and I was thinking, "I haven't even ever had a piece at the Met." Yes, I've been commissioned, but nothing yet. The Grapes of Wrath should be done at the Met. It's a big opera for an A house. It's takes a while for these things to happen.
LH: You get compared to an amazing array of composers . . . from Jerome Kern, to Kurt Weill, to Gershwin, to Barber. How does that make you feel?
RIG: I feel fine about it. For one thing, I feel like the only way people know how to identify you is by who they compare you to. That's certainly a good group. I would throw Ned Rorem in there, just because Ned Rorem was a big influence on me.
LH: I'm going to see him, when I leave you.
RIG: You're going down the block? He lives right near her. He's my dear friend.
LH: Yes, I've been there many times.
RIG: You have to say hello to him. When I first became a composer, he was the first person I knew to model myself after, because we seem to have the love of poetry. I just thought, "OK, I'm going to be Ned Rorem."
LH: He, absolutely, loves poetry.
RIG: I love his work. And you know Phyllis Curtin?
LH: Yes, very well.
RIG: I'm a major fan of hers. You have to tell her that one of the most moving things I have ever seen in my entire life was her premiering Ned's Ariel song cycle. I had come home from college, because it was Ned's 50th birthday. At one point, in the cycle, Phyllis started to cry. She really was lost in the performing of these songs. I was shattered. I had never seen anything like it. I even remember the line it was on. It was in the song "Lady Lazarus." Whether she remembers crying, or not, something very big happened to her at that moment. I was sitting in about the second row. It was on the line, "Nevertheless I am the same identical woman." She really startled me, like it became seminal for me, in terms of, "I want to write the kind of work that makes a singer go there." You know what I mean?
LH: I have a lot of students singing Ned, and I'll have to buy your books and have them sing your music.
RIG: Yes. I have a lot. There are about twenty books. If you go on my web site under 'works,' it says 'publications' and every publication is there. One of the singers I loved was Lorraine Hunt [Lieberson]. She was a friend. We did a concert in Alice Tully Hall. I walked out with Lorraine, and this actress, Cherry Jones. Lorraine sat on a little stool, and I sat at the piano. Cherry recited the poem "Souvenir," then sat on her stool. Lorraine sang my setting of it. So, it started with just a poem . . . with just the spoken word. Then we did that all through the evening. I did a thing, in Brooklyn, with Tony Kushner , called "Words Spoken, Words Sung." It was the same kind of performance.
LH: I think we've covered just about everything. You have been so generous with your time, and I have loved every minute of it. Thank you.
RIG: And thank you. It's been lovely.
- Leslie Holmes, The Journal of Singing